In Word and in Creed

Among Catholics generally, the realization has begun to sink in that we’ll soon receive and in due course start using a new English translation of the Mass. A few people have known that for a long time, and among them reactions are of two kinds: eager anticipation on the part of some, dissatisfaction verging on rejection on the part of others. It’s instructive to consider the pros and cons of this disagreement.

For some of the unhappy ones the source of their discontent appears to reside at least partly in nostalgia. The English translations currently in use remind them of the good old days after Vatican Council II, when they were young and everything seemed possible. In the new translations they claim to see an undoing of Vatican II and a rolling back of liturgical reform.

Whatever else might be said of this view, the people who feel like that have had their shot at reforming the liturgy for the last 40 years. Now it’s somebody else’s turn. Fair’s fair, after all.

A more serious complaint is that the new English version is in some particulars too difficult for people to understand. An example frequently cited is the use of the word “consubstantial.” So, precisely because it comes up so often in this discussion, let’s take a moment to consider the great “consubstantial” debate.

The issue arises in the Nicene Creed, where the Latin text declares that Jesus Christ, Son of God, is “consubstantialem Patri.” In the English translation now in use this is rendered as “one in Being with the Father.” In the new version, it becomes “consubstantial with.” No contest, the critics say. Who knows what “consubstantial with” means? “One in Being” is better because it’s nice and clear.

But hold on. “One in Being” is not as clear as it seems. Nor, upon examination is it even correct.

We are dealing here with the language of metaphysics—appropriately so, since this is a creed, a solemn statement of the content of faith in which it’s necessary that the formulations be precise. By this standard, the current “one in Being with” fails the test.

For one thing, the supposed clarity of “Being” is delusory. Being as we understand it—the being of ourselves and other created things—is only an analogical participation in the subsistent being of God. Yet the translation’s non-specific and undifferentiated application of the word “being” to God sweeps this huge difference aside. We get the appearance of clarity at the expense of accuracy, and in a creed that won’t do.

For another thing, the current translation to the contrary notwithstanding, “being” and “substance” aren’t the same thing. Being means “existence.” And while one trembles at the challenge of trying to say in a few words what “substance” means as a term in metaphysics, it signifies something like the unique, singular identity of a thing.

Is “consubstantial” mysterious? Certainly. The creed is speaking of no less a mystery than the Trinity—three Persons in one God — and affirming that the Second Person, the Son, while distinct, nevertheless is one with the First Person, the Father, in the unique, singular identity of God. In short, “consubstantial with the Father” is correct whereas “one in Being with the Father” is not.

One trusts that the translators of the new translation of the Mass have gone through an analytical process similar to this in making the many decisions any translation involves. If so, the new version will be a considerable improvement over the old.

Russell Shaw


Russell Shaw is a freelance writer from Washington, D.C. You can email him at

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  • elkabrikir

    The purpose of language is to communicate ideas precisely. (Although the clever may utilize words to obfuscate.)

    I’ve been looking forward to speaking/thinking/praying with accuracy for years. For example, in my heart, and in unison with the centurian in Mt 8:8, I’ve replied, “Lord, I am not worthy for you to come under my roof.” With my entire being I live in that moment, 2000 years ago, when a Roman humbled himself before God….and his servant was healed.

    Hopefully, priests and those to whom they delegate the responsibility, will educate the faithful regarding the truth and beauty of the changes. Enlightened by the Holy Spirit, most human minds can grasp the purpose of replacing “one in Being with” with “consubstantial”. Precise
    understanding of the mystery is impossible. Maybe that’s why a “mysterious” word is, in a way, sacramental: it is what it represents.

    Peace be with your spirit….

    Mr Shaw. Thanks for helping prepare the faithful. Like yeast as it leavens bread, we’ll exhale the breath of the Holy Spirit in our parishes, and help bring this renewal to life.

  • golenskd

    I believe part of the problem that has led to the current state of American Catholicism is that individuals are not challenged to fully understand their faith. By trying to simplify or spoon-feed the faith to American Catholics we have created more confusion than clarity. I would hope that many, seeing the word “consubstantial” would at least do a little bit of research to understand what that word means in the context of the creed.

  • I like today’s Mass but I look forward to the new one. I’m sure the People of God can manage any difficulties. As long as we get to go on singing “Lead me, Lord.”

  • dennisofraleigh

    I think we presume too much if we assume that all the words in the Nicene Creed, in it’s present form, can be assumed to be “understood” (theologically, and in a Catholic sense) by a large segment of the faithful. I suspect that when the average Catholic at Mass recites the Gloria, Credo, and many of the responses, they do so by rote, not even conscious of what they are saying, unconcerned with whether they “understand” the meaning of the words or not.

    Sad, but let’s be realistic. Changing the word to the reponses, Gloria, Credo, etc., may annoy the average parishioner, not because words like “consbustantial” sound more abstruse, but rather it’s just the thought of having to memorize a new script. Once they have it down it will be back to rote recitation. For awhile they’ll recite it out of the new hymnals (or misallettes) in the hopes of memorizing the new words so they won’t have to look them up.

    BTW, how many parishioners at the average Sunday Mass actually bow with the priest during the recition of the Nicene Creed when we say “And the Word became flesh. And dwelt among us.” ? Ten years ago, when my wife and I returned to the Catholic faith after 30+ years of being away we had to follow the order of the Mass out of the hymnal. When we came to that part of the Creed in italics that says “All make a reverent bow with the priest” (or something to that effect), we followed the instructions but wondered why almost nobody else in the church, other than those at the altar, reverently bowed at that portion of the Creed.

  • waynergf

    “being:”3.substance or nature.”
    “consubstantial:”of one and the same substance, essence, or nature.”

    Speaking of standards, if we use the dictinary as our standard, the two words *are* conveying the same understanding: “substance or nature.” And describing “being” as “…only an analogical participation in the subsistent being of God. Yet the translation’s non-specific and undifferentiated application of the word…” appears as an attempt to obfuscate its meaning to justify the change.

    On a more realistic note, I don’t think changing the words will have much, if any, effect on Catholics’ understanding of the Trinity. 🙂

    And on a curious note, why has it taken this long for the “translators” to discover this egregious error? Or, back when “one in Being with the Father” was decided upon, was justification given then that sounded just as good as that given now for this change?

  • krby34

    I am not trying to argue that we should go back to the Latin mass I believe the New Mass serves and effective purpose but lets remember why the Vatican uses Latin (as well as science and other disciplines) use Latin as the “base” language. It is a dead language.

    All languages popularly in use around the world are evolving, growing, living and therefore have meanings change and evolve over time. This is a primary reason for constant vigilance to the New Mass and its translations. As words loose emphasis or understanding or change in their definition of practice we need to consider the use of other words. I would argue using the third definition of a word is working down into lesser use or understanding of the word in the norm. Worthy of consideration for change to a more “accurate” word. It may not demand it but it does open the door. When using third and fourth etc. definitions of a word it is easier to argue obfuscation than if using the primary definition of a word.

    Plus with the “changing of the script” it opens the door for teaching and perhaps a chance to get some of those memorization Catholics to the opportunity to truly understand and know what it is that the profess to believe. Change is a part of life and if our Mass is a celebration of life it should be open to the fact that where it meats life it may need to change as well to stay in touch with the world. I believe that is a key part of the message of Vatican II. What can never change is what the Mass is and that is why it should be anchored in the Latin and tradition of the Magisterium.

  • elkabrikir


    everybody at my church bows. That’s our parish “culture”. At another church, which I attend often, nobody bows. However, I try not to see who bows, because I think I would not have proper rectitude of intention in my motives.

    Father Jay Scott Newman, the pastor of St Mary in Greenville, SC, St Mary, spent several homilies instructing the faithful on how he expects the Creed to be prayed in mass. For instance, he changes his inflection on the words, “Of all that is: (pause) seen, and unseen.” Try praying it that way and think about the difference of meaning from when you say, “of all that is seen-an-unseen”. Father Newman also emphasized the importance of bowing and the expectation that the faithful will bow.

    I’m sorry for those individuals who “rote” pray routinely (at times that is necessary, like when you’re sick….the Holy Spirit prays/groans for you then.) However, the Church must lead, regardless of whether the faithful chose to follow.

    BTW: How is the “confetitor” changing. (I already pound my chest, and mentally say mea culpa, 3 times….don’t worry the pounding doesn’t draw too much attention!) How do you all handle the portion of the “confetitor” when we ask for forgiveness from our “brothers and sisters” and say we’ll pray for “our brothers and sisters”. I really have to focus in on those words in order to mean them, otherwise it seems like a lie. I hope people are forgiving me and praying for me. It’s a great consolation. The prayer is a gift of the liturgy.

    Good discussion.

  • waynergf

    Sorry krby34, but the number in front of the definition has *nothing* to do with “lesser use or understanding” of a word. The different definitions a word may have are numbered merely as a way to separate them.

    The same source lists *28* definitions for “love” (as a noun ,verb, etc.), and it’s obvious the numbers have nothing to do with frequency of use or level of understanding.

  • evener

    Many thanks for the article. I am looking forward anxiously for the new missal. Currently in
    nearby dioceses the congregation remain standing from the ” Our Father ” thru & including
    Holy Communion, and all the way to the last blessing, when our faith teaches us that angels & saints from heaven are there kneeling in adoration.
    With great hope I anticipate being able to once again go anywhere in the country, or the world, for that matter, and know & understand our Mass, as it once was before vatican 2.